Sunday, November 1, 2015

Bhutan: the hiking and culture of the Himalayas

Laure, my mom and I celebrated last New Years hiking and learning the beautiful culture and religion of Bhutan.
We toured the more populated and accessible western region that contains most of the tourist sites.

We decided to go to Bhutan after learning how its culture and nature are impressively well preserved. Its Tibetan Buddhism is widely respected and ubiquitous. The locals revere their beautiful mountains; many of which are remote and wild.
Bhutanese Buddhist temples are often nestled high up on the himalayan mountains.
Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten.

The reason why Bhutan is a relatively pristine travel destination is that most tourists (except those from Bangladesh, India, and Maldives) must be accompanied by government licensed tour guides practically at all times. Additionally, these government regulated tours have a fixed all-inclusive daily price that is costly enough to scare most tourists away. But after much thinking, we decided to bite the bullet and visit for a week.

Day 1: Arrival in Paro and wedding anniversary in Thimphu

Bhutan is connected by flights with only four other countries: Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Thailand. We decided to fly in and out through Bangkok, which has daily connections.
Laure and my mom on the way to Bhutan.

Our guide Rana and the accompanying driver Kesan from the Bhutan Rebirth guiding company cordially received us at the airport in Paro. Our first stop was at an old iron chain bridge built circa 14th century. This is one of dozens of suspension iron bridges that are said to be single handedly built by Thangtong Gyalpo, who was not only a iron blacksmith but also a civil engineer and a spiritual leader.
One of many of Thangtong Gyalpo's suspension iron bridges.

At the end of the bridge, he also built a stupa, which is the place of worship commonly associated with Tibetan Buddhism.
Each tiny ceramic in this holy stupa contains someone's ashes.

After getting back on the road, we checked out some vendors selling local goods.
Dried (possibly yak) cheese.

We then arrived at Thimphu, which is the capital and largest city of Bhutan and where we made our home base for two nights.
Pedling is a simple but comfortable hotel in the heart of Thimphu.

After a short rest, we went up a mountain with a giant golden buddha statue overlooking Thimphu. When the construction is fully completed, this statue of Buddha Dordenma will house 100,000 smaller Buddha statues.
Buddha Dordenma is sort of like Bhutan's Christ the Redeemer.

We visited other sites near Thimphu including the first of many monasteries.
These Buddhist prayer wheels should always be spun clockwise.
On the wheels are mantras, which are words believed to contain spiritual power.
We came across this house where they produced hand woven silk scarves.
I picked up a stylish red one to go with my cool blue jacket.

At night, the guiding tour owner Keshav had kindly agreed to set up a special date night for me and Laure to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
Our candle-lit wedding anniversary dinner was set up as a surprise for Laure.
This year's theme was flowers.
We should have taken a photo before we started eating the cake.
We gave the rest of it to other guests and staff at our hotel.
Keshav also presented us with this nice scroll of a buddha.

Day 2: Tango Monastery hike and a paper factory

On our second day, we went on our first hike, which was to Tango Monastery on a mountain a couple of hours up from the trailhead.
"May I be a doctor, medicine and nurse for all sick beings in the world until everyone is cured."
Rickety cable car transporting supplies to the monastery.
View from Tango Monastery.

After the monastery, we visited a traditional paper factory, where they gave us a demonstration of this manual process.
Making paper out of plants.
Papers being hung to dry.

At night, Laure ventured out from our hotel in Thimphu to check out the nearby night vendors. It was New Year's Eve and although it may not be as big of a party as in most western countries, some people were still out celebrating. Unfortunately we had to wake up early to go on a hike the next day, so we briefly celebrated at the hotel and went to bed.
Produce at Thimphu night vendors.

Day 3: Dochula Pass hike and the arrival at our first homestay in Lobesa

Next day, we left Thimphu and went on the biggest hike to visit a couple of monasteries on the mountains east of the Dochula Pass. This was my mom's first high altitude hike reaching 3,541 meters (11,617 ft) at its highest point. We moved slowly in order to maximize oxygen intake at high altitude and our efforts were rewarded with beautiful views of the Bhutanese Himalayas.
The beginning of the Dochula Pass hike.
The first monastery has commanding views of the valleys below.
It also has cute dogs.
The lead monk explained how they used traditional methods for building their homes.
He also invited us to come back on a longer trip to stay and learn more about their religion and customs.
We took a quick snack before we continued our hike.
My mother's first high altitude climb is nothing to sneeze at: a 882 meter climb to summit at 3,541 meters (11,617 feet).
Bhutanese stupas and prayer flags mark the summit.
See our GPS tracks.

After our hike, we got back on the road and got stuck for several hours on terribly deadlocked traffic. Several roads were under construction where they regularly closed them multiple times per day. When the roads were open, the traffic would often get deadlocked on narrow single lane mountain roads.

But we were well welcomed when we arrived at our next destination: our homestay at a small village named Lobesa.
Our hospitable hosts at our homestay in Lobesa.
One of the heads of the household traditionally serves foods for everyone.
We ate many local flavorful dishes prepared by the household.
Some of the dishes had a nice kick of chili.

Our host family was a couple with two kids living in a house that had been handed down over generations. The home was simple, clean and comfortable. The son and his friend fluently spoke English in addition to Bhutanese and Hindi. Apparently Bhutanese television plays a lot of Indian programs.
Our host's friend and the son of the family.
They taught me how to chew a digestive named Doma; something we had also tried in India.
It's somewhat bitter and chewy, so it takes a while to get used to it.

Day 4: Nyinlong holiday and the Bhutanese hot bath

Next morning we were greeted with milk tea in bed.

At our homestay we found out that January 2nd is a special day named Nyinlong, which is considered the most auspicious day in Bhutan. It is sort of like a more traditional New Years celebration in this part of Bhutan.
On the morning of the Nyinlong, we drank this traditional drink named Tupe, which I probably misspelled.
It's sort of like rice porridge.
My mom and the host family's daughter quickly became good friends.

Throughout the day, we toured the Punakha region, which used to be the earlier capital of Bhutan.
We saw people playing archery, which is Bhutan's national sport.
It is traditional to play it on Nyinlong (January 2nd).
One of many Bhutanese Buddhist temples: Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten.
My mom briefly joined Punakha female monks watching TV on their day off monastery teachings.
The Punakha Dzong is a fortress that served as Bhutan's earlier administrative and religious center.
The people from the high-altitude villages of Laya are traditionally yak herders that make three to four days treks to Punakha.
We saw a ceremony celebrating the King's birthday.
The monks chanting mantras sound spiritually awesome.

Back at our homestay, our hosts prepared a special treat for us: a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath.
Our host heated up local stones in a fire outside their house.
Next, he quickly cooled down each stone...
... and added it to a small compartment of the wooden tub.
We finally enjoyed the candlelit hot stone bath... while cooking ourselves.
Cold milk is the traditional drink after a hot stone bath.

At the night marking the special day named Nyinlong, groups of local ladies went around the neighborhood chanting songs and receiving food in return. Although I don't fully understand the tradition, the best American analogy I can give is that it seemed somewhat of a mix of Christmas caroling and trick or treating.
After listening to their songs, our hostess gave them some rice.
She also gave each a shot of home made liquor that is strong enough to make you breathe fire.

Day 5: Fertility Temple and our second homestay in Paro

Next morning, we said goodbye to our lovely hosts that treated us so well.
Thanks for the awesome hospitality!

We then visited the famous fertility temple nearby. Its founder, Drukpa Kunley, taught the Bhutanese that it is possible to become enlightened and still lead a healthy sex life. As a result, he was very open about sexuality, which explains the ubiquity of paintings and sculptures of ejaculating penises.
One of several tourist shops near the fertility temple.

Even some of the relics in the temple were phalluses, which are considered sacred fertility symbols. As with everywhere else in the world, they decided to use male and not female genitals to represent fertility.
My mom got into the habit of spinning the prayer wheels.

After checking out the fertility temple, we got back on the road to Paro.
We came across this yak near the road.

On the way to Paro, we asked to stop at capital city Thimphu so that we can walk around the city center and check out the local businesses and get a better feel for everyday life in Bhutan.
Laure getting some freshly baked pastries in Thimphu.

Arriving in Paro, we were welcomed by our next homestay hosts, who kindly showed us to their comfortable home. This was a relatively modern homestay where we had our own building to sleep. The family also had a separate building with multiple rooms and a stone bath, in which Laure and I indulged.
The homestay's common guest area.
Laure settled in with Mochi and Rug.
These more modern rooms even had space heaters.
Our hosts prepared dinner for us in their cozy kitchen.
Dinner with a nice kick of chili.
We drank a lot of milk tea with something similar to popped rice.
I made friends with the older soon.
And the younger one too.
With the spare time, my mom applied acupuncture and moxibustion on the hostess and on our guide to relieve stress and pain.

Day 6: Tiger's Nest and dance performance

On our last full day, we hiked up to the unarguably most awesome of all monasteries: the Tiger's Nest (Paro Taktsang) hanging on the side of a cliff.
We climbed up a shorter but steeper route in order to save time.
Our effort was well rewarded with beautiful views of the Tiger's Nest.

One factor that differentiates the Tiger's Nest from other monasteries is that some of its rooms of worship and meditation are caves into the mountain. It seems like a strong way of connecting spirituality with nature. As with all other temples and monasteries, visitors are not allowed to take photographs inside.
On the way back, my mom camouflaged well with the prayer flags.
Laure.
The mountains are dotted with prayer wheels and flags.

After our hike, we decided to take a break from our regular schedule and asked our guide for some free time to wander around the streets of Paro. We checked out the food market and local businesses.
Paro farmer's market.

As a last treat for ourselves and a present to our hosting family and our guide, we hired traditional dancers and musicians to perform at the homestay. Relative to other costs in Bhutan, this was a bit of a splurge. Additionally, it felt a bit wrong to ask a crew of artists to come perform for us with only a couple of days' worth of notice despite our guide assuring us that was okay. On the other hand, we really love dancing and this seemed like a way to support preserve local culture and arts. What finally convinced us is that this performance was also a way to thank our host family for their hospitality.
Dance of the drum from Dramitse Nagcham.
Perhaps my favorite was the Crane Dance, which honors the bird for its beauty and grace.

The artists performed various traditional dances from the different culturally diverse regions of Bhutan. The experience felt particularly special with the backdrop of the mountains.
A traditional dance of the Layap people, who live in the high altitude mountains approximately 3,850 meters (12,630 ft). Note that their hats are the same type we saw a few days earlier.
An abundant supply of milk tea kept us warm during the performance.

We ate our last dinner together with our hosting family, which gave us the opportunity to ask many questions about living in Bhutan.
Our last dinner with our host family in Paro.
The food at the homestays easily beat any other meal of our trip.

Day 7: Farewell

On the next morning, we bid farewell to our hosting family that treated us so well. The guides dropped us off at the airport, where we thanked them and said our goodbyes before heading back to our regular lives.
Our last photo with our hosting family from Paro.

Final thoughts

In hindsight, there are some things I really enjoyed about Bhutan and other things that didn't exactly fit our style of traveling.

At the top of things I enjoyed was hiking on the beautiful mountains to the monasteries -- particularly to the Tiger's Nest. Sure, it's a bit touristy, but the beauty of the monastery surrounded by grandiose mountains is hard to match.

We also really enjoyed staying with local families at homestays. This allowed us to make personal connections with locals and learn about their culture. Furthermore, the best meals of our trips were hands down the ones prepared by our host families.

On the other hand, I had a hard time getting used to having guides taking care of us the entire time, which was legally mandatory for us in Bhutan. Over the years, I've come to enjoy the adventure of figuring out what to do: whether it's planning ahead or acting spontaneously. For what it's worth, our guides tried their best to make us feel comfortable and even agreed to allow us to wander around the cities of Thimpu and Paro by ourselves for an hour at a time. I would have also preferred to hike without a guide, but that would definitely have been illegal and perhaps risky without cell phone reception.

We also decided to skip some of the temples even though we really like learning about Buddhism. Frankly the amount of information was somewhat overwhelming, so we opted for some down time and also checked out the local businesses.

Finally, the food at the restaurants was not very memorable. As I've mentioned, the homestay food was far superior to what we ate out. I'm not sure if it's because most Bhutanese people prefer to eat at home instead of restaurants, or if it's because tour companies take visitors to big restaurants specifically catered to tourism instead of smaller restaurants with more interesting Bhutanese food.

I'm really happy we learned so much about Bhutan's culture, stayed with some locals and visited the mountains. But now that we have experienced the highlights, the only reason I can imagine going back would be to go on a multi-day trek on the mountains. I could also imagine returning to visit the cities and villages if we could one day visit without guides.